Without Courage At The Polls, N.B. Is In For The Same Old Song And Dance

If past elections are an accurate predictor, the province will see yet another turn of the revolving door between Liberal and Conservative governments.

02/20/2018 10:22 EST | Updated 02/20/2018 10:25 EST

Industrial economist John Kenneth Galbraith once offered an old Scottish farmer's adage: the problem with politicians running the economy is that too often the perennially stupid are in charge.

Could maintaining the status quo lead to more economic and fiscal failures under New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant's Liberals? Despite a $14.1-billion provincial debt, it is clear Gallant is hoping that New Brunswickers will overlook his constant spending and put him in charge of the province's coffers for yet another four years. Indeed, rather than melting the province's deficit, the recently tabled Government of New Brunswick (Liberal) 2018-2019 Budget pushes it up higher, and out longer.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Stephen MacGillivray
New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant delivers the State of the Province address in Fredericton, N.B., on Jan. 25, 2018.

Election timing could make or break Gallant's run

Armchair politicos and media pundits have been speculating about when Gallant will actually drop the writ. A tentative date is set for Sept. 24, 2018, which is the final date that Gallant must hold a provincial election. But could Gallant toss the dice early, and call an election in spring?

Given N.B.'s election history, calling an election during the final days of spring has rarely proven a safe gamble for incumbent governments.

The June 7, 1999 (Liberal Premier Camille Thériault) and June 9, 2003 (Progressive Conservative Premier Bernard Lord) elections proved disastrous for their governments. Meanwhile, summer elections are considered strategically inopportune (and not held at all in recent N.B. history).

If an election was called pronto, Gallant could face a legion of angry votes against him. While polls seem to indicate many in N.B. would vote Liberal, surveys reflect a downward trend in support for Gallant.

Then there are skeletons in his closet: the property tax scandal, the Medavie deal, the indefinite extension on the fracking moratorium and the demise of Energy East Pipeline all haunted Gallant throughout his first term. And entertaining the idea of a prolonged summer hiatus ahead of a late-summer or early fall election just might diminish any remaining favour Gallant has held on to among fickle New Brunswickers.

Davaan Ingraham / Reuters
An Irving Oil storage facility and crude rail cars are photographed at the edge of Courtenay Bay on in Saint John, N.B., on March 9, 2014.

The business of New Brunswick

New Brunswickers fed up with taxes, a burgeoning cost of living, a volatile stock market and anticipated increases in interest rates just might pull out the pitchforks come election day if Gallant breathes a word about them.

But can Canada's youngest premier survive the imperceptible groundswell of small business, BIG business, private property owners and Anglophone acrimonies towards his governing party's questionable businessinvestments and free-wheeling social policies — all seeming to encumber N.B.'s ability to shift its economy into high gear?

Over the past four years, the economic losses of natural gas exploration, the declines in natural resources developments and the loss of TransCanada's Energy East Pipeline (EEP) must be failures which keep the young premier up at night.

And when Gallant isn't losing money for the province, he's spending it.

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A Jan. 27, 2018 editorial in the Telegraph-Journal titled "Gallant Government: More Spending Will Not Improve Economy" attacked Gallant's Liberal government for racking up a $741-million deficit since taking office in 2014. The editorial also disapproves of provincial Liberals' overspending on such things as public sector unions, education and health care, while also increasing taxes (with a two-per-cent HST hike).

Cutting to the core of the premier's maladroitness, the paper's editorial board states: "We are puzzled that the government is trying the same strategy over and over again, expecting a different result," adding, "The [Gallant-lead] government has been unfriendly to business and traditional industry, preferring to substitute its own, public-sector largesse for a focus on growing the economy."

Some experts also imply Gallant is not tackling Irving Oil interests aggressively enough, noted by the fact that the partially Irving-owned Canaport LNG plant actually escaped paying higher property tax assessments when the province hired a pro-gas industry property evaluation consulting firm to appraise-down the value of "the equipment," which comprises Respol Canada (Repsol SA) and Irving's jointly owned LNG importing plant.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Stephen MacGillivray
Blaine Higgs, MLA and leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of New Brunswick on Jan. 30, 2018.

New Brunswick's revolving door politics

If past N.B. elections are an accurate predictor of voting patterns, election day will see yet another turn of the revolving door between Liberal and Conservative governments. The incumbent government will struggle to reinvent more of the same (see above), while expecting different results. It will fail, and citizens will, predictably, opt for the other political brand in town, the Progressive Conservatives.

In Aarhus University Associate Professor Ann-Kristin Kolln's published thesis, "The Value of Political Parties to Representative Democracy," published in the European Political Science Review (2015), she argues that even though political parties play a major role in representative democracy around the globe, research suggests they are becoming less important to citizens. Kolln also suggests pluralist democracy with its individual representations (as the strongest competitor to party democracy) may be the next best alternative to repeating the pattern of a revolving-door, winner-take-all approach to representative party democracy.

Without the courage to step away from the failures of Gallant's Liberals, but also from offering reactionary support to their political opposite, voters will miss out on an opportunity to experiment with a more pluralistic approach to MLA representation in N.B.'s Legislature. And that's a shame.

If, once again, New Brunswickers are unwilling to take bold risks in their voting behaviours, come election day, as the Aerosmith song belts out: "It's the same old story, same old song and dance, my friend."

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